Credit: Jessica Loaiza

Often time we are told about all of the foods we need to avoid in order to be healthy. But sometimes, there is a piece of good news: it turns out, eating chocolate can actually be good for you.

Made from cacao, chocolate is actually a functional medicinal food and is proven to have so many amazing benefits especially in being able to reduce anxiety and stress – even as soon as we smell it! Cacao in its raw form is a fruit and grows on a tree; it’s then heat processed and made into cocoa which goes into chocolate making.

Cacao improves our mood instantly. Even just the smell of it can activate feel-good brain chemicals and influence brain activity in a positive manner! An experiment was done of human subjects in which researchers found that the aroma of chocolate was associated with deep relaxation. There have been countless studies on cacao—as well as cocoa and dark chocolate—proving that it helps to reduce anxiety, stress, depression, and inflammation.

For the full health benefits of chocolate, it’s ideal to source a chocolate bar that is made with cacao, or you can add pure cacao to your smoothies, make pure hot chocolate with some honey, or add cacao nibs to a smoothie bowl or as the chips in my wholesome cookie dough recipe.

Read on for more spectacular health benefits you can enjoy—just from eating chocolate.

Reduces anxiety

Cacao is one of the richest sources of flavanol antioxidants on earth. Flavonoid-rich chocolate can enhance the endogenous antioxidant activities of the body, resulting in reduced oxidative damage. In one study, changes in self-reported anxiety and other undesirable emotional and energetic states were recorded as a function of having eaten chocolate just after consumption and up to one hour later. One study showed that daily consumption of milk or dark chocolate for just two weeks reduced perceived stress in subjects. It’s no wonder we crave chocolate, and no wonder we feel better when we eat it!

It stimulates blood flow to the brain

The neuroprotective effects of cacao and its influence on cognitive performance can be attributed to its widespread stimulation of blood flow to the brain. Its antioxidant molecules, mainly flavonoids like epicatechin (think dark chocolate and green tea), are responsible. It’s beneficial to eat dark chocolate on days when you know you are going to be under stress, such as the day of an exam at school or a presentation or long workday at the office—even on your wedding day. The flavonoids in chocolate induce positive moods. In addition, flavonoids signal cascades of brain chemicals to be released that inhibit the death of brain cells—thus, reducing anxiety.

It calms the nervous system

The cacao bean is one of the most concentrated source of theobromine, which is a methylxanthine similar to caffeine. But unlike caffeine, which is extremely stimulating, theobromine has only a mild stimulatory effect on the central nervous system.

It helps improve gut health

Balancing the gut is a strategy for improving the balance of neurotransmitters. One study of the effects of cacao on gut health and metabolism found it to be helpful. Consuming dark chocolate reduced the stress hormones cortisol and catecholamine, and it partially normalized stress-related differences in energy metabolism. The study provides strong evidence that a daily consumption of 40 grams of dark chocolate over a period of two weeks is sufficient. That’s roughly one and a half ounces, so just a couple squares of a high-quality dark chocolate would do it. Eat up!

It helps with relaxation

Cacao is remarkably high in magnesium—it has 40 times more than blueberries. Magnesium is a mineral that helps us to relax instantly. When you want chocolate, eat chocolate. If you crave chocolate, it’s a message that your body may be deficient in magnesium. Interestingly, it’s been shown that people who are sleep deprived are likely to be deficient in magnesium. We know that increasing magnesium intake through foods can up your dopamine levels, making you feel more relaxed and satisfied. You can find it in foods such as avocado, chickpeas, nuts, salmon, and cacao. So it’s good to listen to your body and fulfill its needs with wholesome versions of its desires.

It’s full of good, healthy fats

Cacao releases those feel-good emotions in the body and brain. It also is an excellent source of good, healthy fats. Good healthy fat is what calms down our nervous system and releases stress.

It increases serotonin 

Tryptophan is an important amino acid that creates niacin, which creates the neurotransmitter serotonin. The brain needs tryptophan to create serotonin. Tryptophan is found in most protein-based foods, fish, sunflower seed butter, spirulina, and cacao.

It aids motivation—and arousal

Tyrosine helps to increase your levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which regulates movement, motivation, arousal, reinforcement, and reward—in fact, it’s hard to find life satisfactory without enough dopamine in the brain. It is a great energy booster and stress reliever, as well as an appetite suppressor. Cacao is plentiful in tyrosine.

*Reaches for chocolate bar*